Why Pope Francis is going to South Korea

Although Pope Francis has said he doesn’t really like to travel, he’s set to log some serious miles in 2014. He’s already bound for Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan in late May, and on Monday the Vatican announced the pontiff will also visit South Korea August 14-18.

Popes receive more invitations to travel than they can possibly accommodate, so they have to be selective. They make outings which underscore their priorities or allow them to make specific points.

In the case of Korea, the trip provides Francis a chance to accomplish three things at once.

First, Francis is paying off an old debt left behind by Pope Benedict XVI.

The German pontiff made 24 trips outside Italy during his eight-year reign, including two to Latin America and two to Africa, but never made it to Asia. The closest Benedict came was during his four outings to the Middle East.

Any pope would probably consider an Asia swing mandatory under those circumstances, but the first pope ever from the developing world probably feels a special obligation.

Second, the Korea outing allows Francis to acknowledge the dramatic growth of Catholicism across Asia and to say “thank you” for the critical contribution being made to Catholic fortunes today by Asian believers.

During the 20th century Catholicism grew from 1.2 percent to 3 percent of Asia’s overall population, meaning the church more than doubled its “market share.” The number of Catholics in India alone went from under two million to 17 million, and should reach 26 million by 2050. In another Asian Catholic powerhouse, the Philippines, there were more baptisms in 2012 than in France, Spain, Italy and Poland combined.

In Korea, Catholicism has grown by roughly 70 percent during the last decade, to more than five million people representing about ten percent of the national population.

It’s commonplace in Catholic circles today to say that Filipinos in particular are the “new Irish,” meaning an intensely Catholic culture whose people are going abroad in droves in search of opportunity and carrying the faith with them.

It’s tough to find any Catholic jurisdiction in either North America or Europe today where a growing share of priests don’t hail from either the Philippines or India, and, to a lesser extent, from other Asian nations such as Korea, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

The official reason for Francis’ presence in Korea is a gathering of Asian youth, which means the trip is addressed to the entire continent. In effect, it’s a chance for the pontiff to flash a thumbs-up to a region upon which Catholicism is increasingly reliant.

Third, because Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs during his stop in the country, the trip also gives him a chance to raise consciousness on one of his emerging social themes: Anti-Christian persecution in the early 21st century.

During his daily homily on March 4, Francis asserted that “there are more martyrs today than in the early days of the church” and that “so many of our brothers and sisters offer witness to Christ and are persecuted for it.”

Statistics bear out the claim. Scholars generally set the low-end estimate for the number of Christians killed around the world each year for religious motives at around a few hundred, while the high-end comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass., which puts the annual tally at 100,000.

That range works out to somewhere between one new Christian martyr each day, to one every hour.

Asia is one of the regions where the violence is most acute. The most lethal anti-Christian pogrom of the last two decades broke out in the northeastern Indian state of Orissa in 2008, when machete-wielding Hindu radicals went on a rampage that left an estimated 500 Christians dead and thousands more injured.

The Korean martyrs whom Francis will declare “blessed,” the final step before sainthood, were killed between 1791 and 1888 and so are not exactly contemporary. Nevertheless, the event will give the pontiff a chance to make the point that history of martyrdom is far from a closed book.

While the outings to the Holy Land and to Korea are the only foreign trips the Vatican has official confirmed for Pope Francis, officials say on background that the pontiff has expressed a desire to visit the United States in September 2015 for a church-sponsored “World Meeting of Families” in Philadelphia.